Windows XP support has officially come to an end. Of course, if you’re a bank or major corporation with money to burn then protection is still available from Microsoft. But what if you’re a small business, school, or a home user running XP?

What happens now? Will your system actually die along with it? Of course not. Is your computer going to instantly become a target for cybercriminals and their malware?

XP never truly caught up to Windows 8, Windows 7, or even Vista in terms of security. It’s been the most popular target for criminals online for years, and it’s been comparatively easy to compromise. Not all the blame rests with XP, however.

In general, the users that fail to grasp the importance of security are the same ones who aren’t in a hurry to update. As long as they can still play Peggle, sign into Facebook, and listen to their iTunes library, they’re cool — and there’s nothing wrong with running a computer until the wheels fall off.

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Now the updates have come to an end, however, these folks are going to have to be a lot more careful. A top-notch anti-malware program is a good place to start, but make sure that the software doesn’t rely solely on definition updates. Reputation-based screening and behavioral analysis will provide much stronger protection for XP systems — all the top-rated apps offer both.

And even though Microsoft is no longer releasing Windows XP updates, other important apps are still going to receive patches. Google Chrome, for example, will be updated until at least April of next year. Adobe Flash and Reader and Java — all of which are popular targets for online attacks — will also continue to receive updates. They’ll only work when installed, obviously, so don’t just click away the notifications when they pop up in the corner of the screen.

Education would help a lot of XP users, too. Learning how to identify a bogus plug-in installer on a video site, recognize a phishing attempt, or spot a spoofed URL in a browser’s address bar are great ways to stay out of harm’s way.

Would you be better off rushing out and buying a brand new PC with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1? Absolutely, but you shouldn’t feel like that’s your only option. Keep every app you can fully updated and take a more cautious approach when surfing the web, and you should be OK.

Taking a passive approach won’t work any more, though. With XP support at an end, users will need to be vigilant — or else become very comfortable with the prospect of identity theft.

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